Jewish region. Birobidzhan, an area in Russia established more than 60 years ago as the Jewish Autonomous Region, today epitomizes the paradox of renewed Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.
Along with the freedom to practice Judaism openly has come a sharp increase in the number of Jews making aliyah to Israel.
“Now that the Jewish autonomy has real meaning,” says Birobidzhan’s mayor, Vladimir Bolotnov, “people are leaving.”
A destination for Jewish immigration since 1928 and officially designated the Jewish Autonomous Region by Stalin in 1934, Birobidzhan was long touted by the Soviet authorities as an example of flourishing Jewish life in the Soviet Union.
Yiddish, along with Russian, has been the official language in the 14,000- square-mile region.
A Yiddish newspaper, Der Birobidzhaner Shtern, or Star, appears daily. The sign over the railway station is in Yiddish. The main street of the town of 85,000 is named after famed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, whose bust adorns the city library and museum.
In practice, though, the Yiddish language all but died in Birobidzhan, the name for both the city and the region, after Stalin’s bloody purge of the region’s first leaders in the late 1930’s and his edict banning the teaching of Yiddish throughout the Soviet Union in 1949. Even after Stalin’s death, the edict was never reversed.
The Jewish population, some 10 percent to 15 percent of the more than 2 million inhabitants, actually lived no differently from other Soviet Jews in the days before former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s sweeping liberalization of the country.
Birobidzhan’s Jews were cut off from Israel and the Jewish world, forbidden to engage in their religion or culture and were constantly subjected to the Communist Party’s virulently anti-Zionist line.
The only difference was that in Birobidzhan, this propaganda line was delivered in Yiddish as well as in Russian.
Birobidzhan was always cited by the Soviet government as proof that it was not engaged in systematic repression of Jewish religious practice and Zionist sentiment.
But the facade could never sustain close inspection — which explained the almost blanket ban on all foreign visitors to Birobidzhan, a ban that remained in force until the end of the 1980s.
With the gradual easing of restrictions under Gorbachev and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, living conditions for Birobidzhan’s Jews changed profoundly.
Some of these changes were reflected in the pages of the Shtern.
In the past, the paper never uttered a word of Jewish content in its densely packed pages of Communist propaganda. In addition, the Yiddish employed by the paper was carefully neutered of all its Hebrew content and associations.
But much of that is now changed, as could be seen in this year’s April 15 issue, when the paper devoted the top of its front page to Passover greetings from the governor of the region and from the Russian president’s personal representative in Birobidzhan, Josef Nyechin, who is the scion of a well-known Jewish Birobidzhan family.
There have been other, equally dramatic changes.
Israeli visitors, as well as Jewish books, teaching aids and Passover matzot, began arriving here in 1989.
In the city library’s Yiddish reading-room, Chabad Chasidic tracts now jostle for shelf space with Stalin’s “On Leninism.”
Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish tradition are taught in Jewish schools to young people and adults who previously knew nothing of their faith and heritage.
The region’s government, working in tandem with Israeli and Diaspora Jewish organizations, is actively supporting and funding Jewish cultural programs.
Nyechin’s sister, Anna, runs a government school where Yiddish, modern Hebrew and Israeli folk dancing are now optional subjects available to all students, Jews and non-Jews alike.
But now that Jewish autonomy is emerging as a reality after decades of a cynical sham, the area’s residents are finding that their community can flourish only as long as there are Jews in Birobidzhan to enjoy and promote it.
Hundreds of families already have made aliyah to Israel, mainly to Ma’alot, Carmiel and Upper Nazareth in the Galilee. Hundreds more are actively planning to leave.
“They only go for economic reasons,” says Bolotnov, the non-Jewish mayor who has visited Israel, where his town has as its sister city the Jewish-Arab city of Ma’alot.
“In our country, the time has come when each person can choose what he wants,” says Bolotnov.
“I am not prepared to influence them to stay,” he adds, “but, for those who do stay, we will help provide them with all they need to pursue their culture, their festivals and studies.”
Some in Birobidzhan express resentment at the impact aliyah may have on the survival of their community.
Opponents of aliyah include regional officials whose status and livelihood are tied to the well-being of the Jewish Autonomous Region.
The opponents also include Jews who are not contemplating aliyah for various personal or family reasons.
One Yiddish teacher at a Sunday school criticized a Jewish Agency program that encourages teen-agers to complete their high school studies in Israel.
The Jewish Agency representative in the area “wants to do away with Birobidzhan,” says the teacher.
“But not everyone can leave,” the teacher added. “We have to have culture for those who stay.”
Another teacher in the school, who learned Hebrew at seminars in Israel and in Moscow, says shy would like to make aliyah, but her husband, a gifted musician, fears that the may not find work in his field in Israel. To boost his income in Birobidzhan, he plays nightly at a local restaurant.
However, the couple are sending their eldest son to study in the high school program. They know that if the boy is successfully absorbed into Israeli life, the pull on them to move may one day be irresistible.